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MSU Blueberry Breeds Bolster Michigan Ag Success

Blueberries enjoy worldwide popularity, thanks to their sweetness and anti.oxidant-rich nutrition profile. But the bounty of nature alone is not enough to keep pace with the heavy demand for this tasty, healthy fruit. Success depends on the introduction of new cultivars to meet the changing needs of consumers as well as growers. And for more than half a century, Michigan State University (MSU) has been a key player in bringing new blueberry varieties to the table.

Since the early 1900s, blueberries have been commercially grown in Michigan, and today the tiny berries are big business. In 2011, the Michigan blueberry industry spanned 18,000 acres and yielded 72 million pounds of fruit valued at more than $118 million.

Breeding Abundance

In the 1960s, MSU horticulturist Stanley Johnston, perhaps best known for developing the Red Haven peach, created both the Northland and Bluehaven blueberry varieties. But few MSU plant breeders have been more successful than MSU AgBioResearch scientist James Hancock.

A professor of horticulture and recipient of the 2014 MSU Innovation Center Technology Transfer Achievement Award for excellence in applying innovation to create real-world solutions, Hancock developed four of the world’s most widely planted northern highbush blueberry varieties: Aurora, Draper, Huron and Liberty (20 million plants of these varieties have been sold), along with several other successful cultivars during the past three decades at MSU.

Hancock began working at MSU in 1979. He used his experience in evolutionary genetics to study blueberries and several other small fruits in an effort to identify traits beneficial for commercial production. Ideal blueberry candidates not only have superior taste but are adaptable to environmental stresses and pressure from diseases and insects.

Working closely with U.S. Department of Agriculture blueberry breeder Arlen Draper, in honor of whom Hancock named the Draper variety, Hancock realized the need for new varieties in Michigan.

In 1979, Michigan farmers were planting 30- to 60-year-old varieties such as Bluecrop, which thrives in midseason but left sizable gaps at both the beginning and the end of the growing season. Growers experience their highest profits from early and late harvest, when supplies are lowest. Late-season fruit needs to tolerate the highly fluctuating temperatures of fall.

Hancock’s Aurora and Liberty varieties have a harvest that begins after older late-season varieties such as Bluecrop. Both varieties produce high and consistent yields during the late growing season and tolerate the harsh late-season temperatures.

Delivering What Michigan Growers Need

Both Hancock and Draper had developed extensive germplasm resources — collections of wild and cultivated plants of all shapes, colors and sizes. Combining these sources enabled Hancock to identify the plants with the most desirable characteristics. Hancock’s germplasm bank consists of 121 plants. Eventually he started to crossbreed those plants and trial them at the then newly opened MSU Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center (SWMREC) in Benton Harbor in the early 1990s.

“As a breeder, I’m most proud of the varieties,” Hancock said. “We released three in 2004, and they’ve all done extremely well, and in the past five years we’ve released three more. I feel good having the whole production season covered, and I think we’ve delivered what Michigan growers needed.”

– by James Dau, Communications Coordinator, Futures, Fall 2014

–  Photo: James Hancock (left) and Peter Callow work with their blueberry germplasm in Hancock’s MSU lab. 

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